From the beginning of the 1930s until the Japanese invasion in 1937, Chinese cinema saw its first golden age. Based in Shanghai, a multicultural and Western-oriented city, these films often depicted ordinary people, reflecting the left-wing movement in the city. What is unique about this period is that the majority of the leading roles were for women. One of the most iconic stars from this period, Ruan Lingyu, starred in one of the most important films, The Goddess.
A young mother (Ruan Lingyu) works as a prostitute in order to support herself and her son. One night, in order to avoid the police, she takes refuge in a stranger’s room. The owner is a gambler, the ‘Boss’ (Zhang Zhizhi), who decides that she’s now his property. When the child is older, she uses all her earnings to put him through school, but when word gets out about her occupation there are calls for his expulsion.
The legacy of Ruan Lingyu is difficult to entirely quantify. She was an immense talent, but her tragic death at the age of 24 cut-short a potentially glittering career whilst cementing her as an icon. She was, and remains, a huge influence of female actors in China. She’s utterly spellbinding in The Goddess; encapsulating the suffering of poor women in Chinese society. The Goddess is a beautiful and powerful jewel of silent cinema. This new restoration brings it to a whole new audience.
The Goddess is released on DVD by the BFI on Monday 24 April.